After several years of financial challenges, including a rained out festival in 2012, a festival in 2013 that didn’t meet its attendance goals, along with declining ticket sales and sponsorships, Cityfolk has announced it will focus on jazz, while canceling its 2013-14 season and its plans for a 2014 festival. It will also discontinue its residency program, Culture Builds Community, and has withdrawn from its anticipated partnership with The Dayton Art Institute. Ohio’s only full-time traditional arts presenter was founded in 1980, and was committed to presenting ethnic and traditional folk arts. Through the years Cityfolk presented Celtic music, jazz, blues, world music, American roots, and more. In 1996, the National Folk Festival chose Dayton as its location for a three-year run. After the third year, Cityfolk kept the tradition going. Early festivals were at Courthouse Square and surrounding streets. Recent festivals have been at RiverScape.
According to Matt Dunn, Cityfolk Board President, Cityfolk knew it had to change its business model. “Even prior to last year’s festival, we were realizing declining ticket sales, sponsorships, and government support,” said Dunn. “The rain that devastated last year’s festival put us in a deeper hole and sped up our process for making changes, including having a fundraising campaign, while also letting go of some staff.”
The change, according to Dunn, included the staff reductions, a post-festival campaign following the 2012 festival, seeking potential partners, and making the decision to charge admission for the 2013 festival. “Many festival-goers,” Dunn said, “didn’t realize we were a non-profit organization with a full-time staff and year-round programming. The festival costs money to produce and we couldn’t continue to offer it for free.” The other change involved a pending partnership with The Dayton Art Institute. That change was to take place after the festival. According to Dunn, Cityfolk had planned to let its remaining staff go, and responsibilities for the programming and management of Cityfolk would have been contracted with The Dayton Art Institute, under a management agreement. Likely because of a combination of rain and the paid admission, the festival didn’t meet its attendance goals. “Money raised at the festival is used to support the organization’s year-round programming,” Dunn said. “And this year’s festival came up short.”
“It’s disappointing,” said Michael Roediger, Executive Director at The Dayton Art Institute, “We were looking forward to a relationship that would have been beneficial to both organizations.” Dunn and Roediger both acknowledge that a lot of work went into defining the partnership with the hope that new and creative opportunities would evolve to capitalize on, and integrate, the mission and strengths of both organizations.
In recent years, other arts organizations realized they needed to change in order to realize economies of scale. The most prominent and recent change was the merger between the Dayton Opera, Dayton Ballet, and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra to form the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. Before that, Carillon Park and the Montgomery County Historical Society merged to become Dayton History. While the partnership between Cityfolk and The Dayton Art Institute wasn’t a merger, each organization was hoping its structure would have impacted their bottom lines in a favorable way. However, citing the desire to enter into the partnership with cash on hand, and no debt, Dunn said “in the end, we just couldn’t make the numbers work.” He continued, “It would have been irresponsible to enter into a partnership knowing that we wouldn’t be able to meet our commitment or live up to our end of the agreement.” Taking it a step further, Dunn continued, “The only responsible thing to do is to discontinue programs that lost money.”
While the 2013-14 concert season was announced at the 2013 Festival, no tickets have been sold, according to Dunn. Shows, in partnership with the University of Dayton’s Arts Series, will continue. The other shows will be canceled. Knowing the power of the arts, and referring to Culture Builds Community and the Welcome Dayton initiative, in which Cityfolk was involved, Dunn said, “hopefully the community will continue to use the arts to affect social change and to bring people together using the arts as a bridge between cultures.”
“Cityfolk has 33 years of history under its belt,” said Dunn, “We have had great relationships with major institutions, including the City of Dayton, Five Rivers Metroparks, Dayton Public Schools, the University of Dayton, WYSO, The Dayton Art Institute, The Masonic Center, Gilly’s, Canal Street Tavern, and more. We’re grateful to the county, the city, the Ohio Arts Council, Culture Works, the National Endowment for the Arts, and our many volunteers, sponsors, foundations, members, and other supporters. We’re proud of the diverse artistic experiences we’ve brought to Dayton. That will be our legacy.”
While suspending normal operations will allow the organization to down-size, Dunn hopes Cityfolk will not go away completely. An all-volunteer-led Cityfolk will use the coming weeks to assess its options to continue presenting jazz, for which it has an endowment to help cover the costs. The endowment, specifically for presenting and preserving jazz, was raised locally and matched by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Said Dunn, “Cityfolk is committed to keeping this money in the community and using it for the purpose for which it was intended.”